Land 400 Phase 3: cutting the foot to fit the shoe
2 Sep 2022|

The recent Strategist post and associated Strategic Insight paper by the director of ASPI’s defence, strategy and national security program, Michael Shoebridge, again targets Australia’s infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) acquisition.

I disagree strongly with the argument that the number of IFVs should be reduced significantly from the planned 450 to allow the acquisition of other capabilities.

Shoebridge argues that a ‘part’ of the Australian Defence Force should recruit, train, structure and equip to fill a growing disaster relief role, thereby ‘protecting’ the warfighting elements from being tasked to do so.

He says that because climate change will drive a growing demand for the ADF to play a role in disaster relief domestically and in the region, and to avoid having to divert people and systems designed for warfighting to deal with civil crises, Defence should have the resources to recruit, train, structure and equip a part of the ADF for a growing disaster relief role.

Shoebridge also says Australia is not likely to need to fight a large-scale war of attrition with a land power such as Russia and nor is it likely to refight the battles of Iraq, and this means the defence strategic review can re-examine the wisdom of buying 450 IFVs.

And he says Australia’s military simply can’t deploy, sustain and support more than 700 heavy armoured vehicles in our region and nor should the ADF be structured to fight major land battles on the Korean peninsula or the India–Pakistan border.

I will keep my comments on the issues raised about climate change short and sharp. While Shoebridge does not say which service should do this, it is likely that, given its ability to put boots on the ground and perform a vast array of roles that air and naval forces cannot, the ‘part’ of the ADF that would do this is the army.

I would argue that this notion implies that the army should be sacrificed on the altar of climate change to enable the other services to get on with the real business of warfighting and fails to comprehend the vital tool of statecraft that the army is. I believe it also illustrates a lack of understanding of the key roles the army performs in establishing and maintaining collective security across our region with allies and partners and the essential and unique contribution it makes to Australia’s military strategy.

There is an implication in Shoebridge’s pieces that the army is modernising its armour capability to fight a large-scale land war of attrition. This is incorrect. The army is not structured or equipped to fight the armed forces of a major power such as Russia. Unlike the US, British and Canadian armies, Australia has never undertaken exercises such as REFORGER or BATUS to replicate fighting on the European steppe. The army and its armour capability, which is to include IFVs, main battle tanks and combat reconnaissance vehicles, is structured, equipped and trained to operate in Australia’s primary operating environment as part of the nation’s military strategy.

Chief of Army Lieutenant General Simon Stuart said in a recent speech it had to be made very clear that not providing the protection afforded by 21st-century combined-arms fighting systems would reduce the probability of mission success, and ultimately cost a greater price—or leave the ADF without an option.

‘The combined arms fighting system that protects our soldiers today has at its core a 60-year-old armoured personnel carrier,’ Stuart said. ‘We can and we must do better—and we have a plan to do so.’

To suggest that Australia should radically reduce the number of IFVs the army is seeking because 700 heavy armoured vehicles cannot be deployed overseas is misleading. In broad terms, 700 vehicles constitute the total of all the armour in the Australian inventory—450 IFVs, 211 combat reconnaissance vehicles and 75 main battle tanks. As was clearly articulated by defence analyst and historian Leo Purdy, the acquisition target of 450 vehicles is to adequately equip operational forces, training elements and sustainment stocks. As discussed in a recent issue of Defence Technology Review, deploying 450 or 700 vehicles offshore makes no sense in the context of how the army force-generates, deploys and sustains capability. Equally, no armed force on the planet would deploy 100% of its military capability abroad, including all its operational, training and sustainment stocks. Suggesting that Australia might do so is misleading.

Shoebridge says the ‘dream number of 450 IFVs is almost certainly unaffordable even for the existing $18–27 billion budget’ and argues that cuts to this mega-project could allow funds to be used on other capabilities. He does not explain why the IFV program is unaffordable. Given that it is a live tender and subject to government determination in the near term, I find it difficult to believe that Defence would elevate a project to cabinet without the necessary internal checks and balances by various committees, as well other external agencies, occurring.

I’d disagree strongly with any suggestion that in all the possibilities of future war, conflict and crises, the army, or more accurately land power, is less useful and less necessary than sea and air power and thus can be divested of capability, function and funding.

As Professor Michael Evans has articulated in more detail, the ability to predict future war is extremely elusive. War with China is possible as is war on the Korean peninsula, but Australia’s involvement is not predestined. Equally, a civil war or insurgency spawned by the coup of a dictator; the failure of a state in our region due to economic, religious, ethnic or social tensions; or the occupation and subjugation of a neighbour by a hostile power are also possibilities.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the requirement for credible, deployable and sustainable combined-arms land power, which includes armour, in the belief that future war will only require naval and air power.

Cutting the number of IFVs would be not only flawed but dangerous. To do so would undermine Australia’s declared defence policy by reducing its ability to engage with regional allies and partners and unbalance the execution of its military strategy. It is patently dangerous for Australia’s soldiers who would be condemned to fight a 21-century threat with 20-century means. That is not an argument which should be taken seriously.